Friday, June 15, 2012

Parshat Shelach Lecha - פרשת שלח לך

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, לָמָּה זֶּה אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת פִּי ה', וְהִוא לֹא תִצְלָח - And Moshe said: 'Why is it that you transgress the commandment of Hashem? It shall not succeed!

(במדבר י"ד:מ"א)

The verse above comes at the end of the story of the Meraglim, the "spies" who were sent to scout out the land of Israel prior to what was supposed to be Israel's entry. Unfortunately, the spies' report was highly critical and negative. Because the spies spoke badly about the land of Israel (or according to some explanations, because they saw bad in Israel,) the people of that generation were reprimanded and punished by being told that they wouldn't be given the merit to enter the land of Israel.

In an attempt to correct their earlier error, some of the Jews then declared that they would push forward into the land of Israel regardless. It is at this point that Moshe warns them, above. Immediately afterwards, we read of how this plan was doomed to fail with shocking consequences; those who went to enter the land were met by forces from the Amalek and Canaan armies, and were thoroughly annihilated.

I'd like to take a close look at the wording of the verse above. If we pay attention to Moshe's warning, he words his statement in an odd way; he doesn't say "you will not succeed," rather he phrases it as "it will not succeed." What is the it that he is referring to? The answer is actually fairly obvious, and the Ibn Ezra makes no time in explaining that "it" was the action of making aliyah, of going into Israel. "It" was the plan to do this, and this "it" would not succeed.

But we've only gone halfway to answering the question; now we know what the "it" was referring to, but we still don't know why Moshe referred to the plan as liable to fail rather than telling the people that they would fail. By changing the subject of his sentence, it seems unncessarily clunky. I'd like to tender an answer of my own: Moshe refused to criticise the people. He saw that they had good intentions and wanted to correct their earlier error. He realised that there was no point in telling them off for their hearts were true, even if their actions were off. I am not yet a parent and am not really in a place to direct people how to raise their own children, but I've heard it said that one must never say "stupid boy" or "bad girl", but rather must explain to the child in question that their actions were bad or lacked being thought through properly. The child is almost always good, even if the action isn't. In a similar manner, Moshe make sure to tell the nation that their actions would not succeed.

I'd like to relate this to current affairs. In recent weeks, a Scottish city council has voted to ban buying Israeli books for its library. I think we would to well to note the hypocrisy here. There are many people around the world who condemn Israel and declare it's actions illegal and immoral, decrying it to be an apartheid state. But how would they react when faced with terrorists and supporters of terrorists?

The problem here is one of unfair, destructive criticism, as opposed to fair and constructive criticism. I believe it is vital for a healthy democracy to be subject to criticism. If Israel's soldiers conduct themsleves in a manner not befitting of their role, they ought to be taken to court and sentenced. If Israel's politicians are too careless in their policies towards Palestinians, then they need to be reined in and critcised for their decisions. But the wholesale smearing of a state and all its citizens has no place in aiding the progress of democratic values.

As such, while Israel should not be criticised the way it is, it remains up to us to see to it that the problems in our society are sorted out. It is instructive to note that Israel is barely 60 years old. When America was 60 years old, slaves were still commonplace. Equality, theoretically at least, was only achieved in the last century. And real equality still hasn't been achieved in America. Hopefully Israel can become a platform on which the values of the Jewish people, the values of justice and equality amongst them, will be demonstrated with pride.

While Israel is surrounded by shocking hypocrisy, it remains up to us to ignore such inane criticism. We need to learn the lesson Moshe teaches here: we need not pay attention to those who try to attack us at every opportunity. But at the same time, we need to try to improve our conduct ourselves so that we arrive at the highest moral standard possible.

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom!

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